The Value of Internship

Museums are “a repository of objects dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and inquiry and the dissipation of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to those of other cultures and times without prejudice.”[1]

Internships within museums or archives are a vital learning tool for those students who wish to engage with the physical pieces of history. Those pieces give us a tangible connection to those persons and eras that touch our senses and curiosities, and compel us forward into the field of History. These artifacts and documents increase our knowledge of other cultures and instill us with empathy and insight into why actions and events happened. My journey toward becoming a Public Historian began as a child digging into the side of a hill to excavate treasures from a hundred-year-old root cellar. Today, as it was then, I can hold the objects in my hands and feel the individuals that may have touched and utilized these things.

This summer I was privileged to accept an internship at The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia. My principal task was to organize and catalogue the manuscript collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. Even though that museum closed in 2008, its collections are being cared for and made available to the public through the efforts of the Gettysburg Foundation, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. Working with the documents and miscellaneous papers in numerous boxes has given me invaluable experience in archival applications. The detail-oriented work of archivists in managing a collection is paramount to researchers who seek historical documents for their projects; indeed, it is the expectation of all who access these resources that the integrity of the collection be meticulously maintained. Proper care of these items ensures that students of history and historians can offer to the public theoretical explanations as to why choices were made or why an event occurred.

Within the manuscript collection of the CWMP are the written words of soldiers and their families, as well as presidents and staff.  Each box and folder that I opened contained a small piece of Civil War history that had the potential of being lost to the ages if not made available to researchers. Tasked with sorting, cataloging, scanning and proper storage, I handled hundreds of items. My first task was one that has stayed with me since reading the first letter.

Supply List

The supply list of William “Billy” F. Thacher, 16th Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry, c.May- November 1863

 

William F. Thacher was a young farmer just nineteen years old when he enlisted with the 16th Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry. Born in Genesee County, NY, “Billy” was 5’10” and had gray eyes and dark hair. He was enlisted on September 12, 1862 at Erie Co., PA by Lieut. Hazelton for a period of 3 years. There are twelve letters in this collection, one from his sister Annie, and one from a 16th Cavalry comrade informing “Billy’s” family of his wound and amputation; the others are from William to his mother or “Parrents”[sic]. Each letter was written at a unique juncture in his service. From his first encampment and adjustment to life as a soldier, picket duty, his first wound (a saber cut to the wrist), his hospital stay, and finally attending Quaker City College in Philadelphia to learn telegraphing and bookkeeping. On July 28, 1864 William was wounded a second time when he took a ball to his arm while his regiment was “sharply engaged with the enemy Near Malvern Hill … three killed and fourteen wounded” at Deep Bottom, VA.[2] Two days after the fighting, William’s friend, Robert Blair wrote to the family with the news and words of encouragement: “he bore the pain like a brave Soldier Boy… Mrs Thacher you must not be uneasy about Billy for he will get along first rate and will soon be home …. Oh how lonesome I will be without him for we was always together…. His horse was wounded to[sic] in the foot”[3] William was finally discharged from the hospital and his service on June 15, 1865. He listed his place of residence after the war as Vineland, County Cumberland, New Jersey.

With the support of the Graduate Summer Research Fellowship, I spent two weeks in research at The National Archives in Washington, D.C. and College Park, MD. While there, I included William into my queries and learned that he was well-regarded by his superiors, having received a promotion to corporal. He was also unfairly disciplined and “tied up” while on picket duty. Regiment Commander, Lieut. Col. J. K. Robison requesting, “in justice to a good and faithful soldier, – and for the benefit of the service, a court of inquiry be had, – and the officer, if found over stepping his authority as Brigade Officer of the Day, and violating all orders of military discipline, be put under arrest, and charges preferred against him.”[4] I also found the list of supplies and clothing he requisitioned.[5]

 

 

I have not yet found all the pieces to the story of William F. Thacher, that will take many more hours of treasure hunting through online and physical archives. But the example here is how valuable an internship is to a student of History. My experience has not only taught me the important tasks of the archivist, such as analyzing, cataloging, and housing the artifacts, but it has also shown me how to make this information accessible to the public. When these pieces of history are made available for research, they not only teach us about past individuals and historic events, but also create potential for public conversations that can change the future.

 

[1] James Cuno, ed. “Introduction,” Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, 1-36. Princeton University Press, 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7pgrk.4. Pg 1

[2] Janet B. Hewett, Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies: Part II – Record of Events. Vol. 57, Serial No. 69. (Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1997) Pg 422

[3] Letter images courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League

[4] Letter from Lieut. Col. J. K. Robison, Regiment Commander, to Lieut. John B. Maitland, Assistant Adjutant General, February 21, 1864; Regimental Letter – Endorsement, Journal, and Misc. Book, Vol. 4 of 9, 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Record Group 94; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

[5] Regimental Order Book, Companies A – M, 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Vol. 6 of 9, Record Group 94; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. (image courtesy of the author)

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